Dual enrollment, the practice in which high school students take college courses for credit in both systems, is on the rise nationally, with more than a million students participating, over 70% of them at community colleges. In California, high school students are now present in 14% of all community college courses.
Taking college-level courses while in high school provides students with more advanced and expansive coursework, promotes student engagement and strengthens “college identity” — students’ sense of themselves as college-goers. A substantial body of research has found that participation in dual enrollment improves postsecondary success and helps students obtain college degrees more quickly.
For decades, California high school students self-selected into a wide array of courses at their local, open-access community colleges. Their participation in these courses was highly individualized and often dependent on their personal or family knowledge about these opportunities and unequal resources to enroll. Indeed, until recently, rates of participation in dual enrollment mirrored other college readiness indicators (such as test scores or Advanced Placement participation): unequal by race/ethnicity, income and geography.
Our research (Wheelhouse and PPIC), however, shows strong potential for expanded dual enrollment as an equalizing force in college preparation and success. We found that racial/ethnic gaps in dual enrollment have narrowed over time, particularly in more formal or structured courses.
State policy has had a strong hand in this expansion. In 2016, California Assembly Bill 288 provided a framework within which more structured dual enrollment could be embedded in high school students’ regular course-taking. In particular, it enabled high school-college partnership agreements to offer community college courses exclusively to high school students, often on high school campuses. This model expanded access to dual enrollment courses, and enrollment data show this kind of participation to be more equitable across student subgroups.
At Reedley College in Fresno County, dual enrollment expansion has been part of a broader K-16 strategy to improve outcomes through Guided Pathways, an approach that puts community college students on more structured, efficient paths to degree or transfer. Leaders in this work describe their desire to depart from what they call “random acts of dual enrollment” in favor of regular collaboration with neighboring high schools to focus on course sequences that help accelerate progress toward a college degree and/or add up to certificates that have strong value in the labor market.
“Dual enrollment is really about leveling that playing field… to reach out and provide this opportunity to students who might otherwise not be able to have it,” said Renee Craig-Marius, Reedley’s vice president of student services.
As with any evolving practice, there’s room for improvement:
- Access to and success in dual enrollment courses overall remains uneven and dependent on the high schools that students attend and the types of dual enrollment programs students are in.
- Too many dual enrollment courses — more than 1 in 10 — aren’t transferable to the state’s public four-year colleges, undercutting the basic purpose of degree acceleration.
- Instructor shortages remain a challenge but could be addressed by helping K-12 teachers acquire master’s degrees in high-demand disciplines, as well as exploring alternative qualifications, such as considering teaching experience in the discipline.
Jennifer Cisneros got a head start on college while she was in ninth grade. A first-generation college student in Fresno County, she is now a senior who will graduate from Reedley Early College High School with an associate degree in agricultural business. She says her dual enrollment experience taught her to navigate higher education and helped define her plans for the future, which involve attending the University of California Merced, UC Davis or Fresno State and ultimately pursuing a health-related career: “I have learned to become independent in my work but also to reach out when I need help.”
Although nearly all California high schools now have at least some students enrolled in a community college course, more could benefit from this kind of intentional, structured opportunity that puts students on a path to college credentials and degrees. The ultimate success of dual enrollment expansion lies in improved college persistence and degree attainment, particularly for historically underserved groups.
That’s far more likely to happen equitably when it isn’t left to chance.
Michal Kurlaender, professor and department chair at the UC Davis School of Education, is lead researcher for Wheelhouse: The Center for Community College Leadership and Research. Olga Rodriguez is senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California Higher Education Research Center.
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